The rush of countries seeking to obtain nuclear power as the price of oil soars is going to make U.S. efforts to contain nuclear proliferation and keep terrorists from obtaining weapons of mass destruction even harder, the Energy Department's top intelligence chief warned Monday.
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former top CIA analyst who heads the Energy Department's Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, said the coming global boom in nuclear power is forcing the U.S. government to rethink old proliferation strategies and take a hard look at the countries joining the nuclear club.
"The power of the atom has become one of the most highly sought-after prizes of 21st-century technological advancement," Mr. Mowatt-Larssen said in a rare public address at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"States want to harness its power for energy, weapons, deterrence and prestige. Sub-state actors desire it for the asymmetric power of becoming a state, at least in terms of the influence they are able to wield."
Nearly 280 small-scale nuclear research reactors can be found in 56 countries, he said.
The dangers of nuclear proliferation were underscored with revelations over the weekend that plans for a small nuclear device were found on laptop computers traced to the nuclear smuggling operation run by disgraced Pakistani researcher A.Q. Khan, whose international network was thought to have been shut down four years ago.
Officials say they are still trying to determine who might have seen the weapons blueprints.
Mr. Mowatt-Larssen did not directly address the new charges against the Pakistani scientist, but said the task for intelligence agents had grown more difficult with the nuclear boom.
Countries across the Middle East and Asia have announced plans in recent months to establish domestic nuclear programs, for both economic and strategic reasons.
A study by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies found that virtually every Middle Eastern nation save Iraq had expressed interest in nuclear power, in part, analysts said, because of the fear that Iran was pursuing a nuclear bomb.
"If Tehran's nuclear program is unchecked, there is reason for concern that it could in time prompt a regional cascade of proliferation among Iran's neighbors," the report said.
Much of President Bush's weeklong European trip that ended Monday focused on rallying international opinion against Iran's nuclear programs. Tehran claims its nuclear programs are for peaceful civilian uses.
"For each new country that develops a civil nuclear program, we should re-evaluate that country's leadership intent, its technology base, security practices, economic and social standing, and tradition of law and order and then reformulate our own nuclear, economic, technology, political and deterrence policies in response," Mr. Mowatt-Larssen said.
The old narrow focus on keeping nuclear materials and know-how out of the hands of known terrorists is not enough, said Mr. Mowatt-Larssen, who added that the new nonproliferation strategy must focus on what he called "all things nuclear."
"We must make a strategic shift from our traditional views of terrorism, proliferation, nuclear weapons and nuclear energy as being separate entities and instead view them as parts of a single framework of all things nuclear," he said.